Island County launches pilot program to combat opioid abuse

By Patricia Guthrie

Whidbey News Times

WHIDBEY ISLAND — A new outreach team that seeks out addicts on their own turf began on Camano Island and South Whidbey this month. At the same time, a countywide needle exchange program was restarted.

The three-person outreach team includes a public health nurse, Island County sheriff’s deputy and an opioid outreach advocate. The team is overseen by the county’s Human Services Behavioral Health office and plans to expand into North Whidbey in the future.

Local law enforcement often know who drug offenders are and where they hang out.

A deputy will stand by while a nurse assesses health needs and an outreach worker gauges barriers to getting treatment, Human Services Director Jackie Henderson said.

“It’s a way of looking at the whole person and assessing what their needs are,” Henderson said.

The pilot program is aimed at people addicted to opioids, such as narcotic painkillers and heroin, because opioids are killing more users, filling jail cells and overwhelming families and law enforcement.

Carolyn Pence was hired by the county to serve as the team’s lead outreach worker.

An experienced drug and alcohol educator, Pence said the team will meet one-on-one with opioid users wherever they feel the most comfortable.

“It could be someone’s house, a coffee shop or a community center,” she said.

The team also is prepared to give people food and hygiene items. They’ll address issues that keep people from seeking help, such as lack of transportation or health insurance, and direct them toward social service programs.

“We won’t give up on people,” Pence said. “Maybe they don’t want to get off the drugs that day.

“We’ll check back with them in a month.”

Getting people into treatment locally isn’t easy because Island County has no in-patient drug rehabilitation centers. There usually are waiting lists in nearby cities, Henderson said.

Getting help from the outreach team is voluntary but that could be an incentive for some.

“They have to be willing to participate and that’s a different approach,” said deputy Grant Walker, who patrols South Whidbey. “Before, it’s been a prosecutor ordering treatment.

“This is a way to do some of that without the legal pressure behind it.”

The county also reintroduced a needle exchange program, which lost funding several years ago. Intravenous drug users must turn in a used needle to receive a clean one from a nurse who can make referrals to recovery and other programs.

“Sharing needles is a huge risk factor for contracting hepatitis C,” said public health nurse Colleen Keefe, who is the communicable disease coordinator for Island County. She’s also part of the outreach team.

Federal studies have shown that needle exchange programs don’t increase drug use when conducted with referrals to drug treatment and support services.

The three-person outreach team is funded by a $74,000 grant from the five-county North Sound Behavioral Health Organization and a contribution of $20,000 from Amerigroup Washington, a Washington Apple Health provider.

The Island County Board of Commissioners approved the new approach last year as a pilot project. Similar outreach programs are underway in Snohomish County.

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